Friday, May 19, 2017

Adaptation by Mack Reynolds

Civilizing the interstellar diaspora
Adaptation, a novella by science fiction author Mack Reynolds, was originally published in the August 1960 issue of Astounding Science Fact and Fiction magazine. The story takes place in a distant future in which mankind has branched out from Earth to colonize other planets throughout the galaxy. After a thousand years of such colonization, human civilizations exist on numerous worlds but in different stages of development. Now, for the first time, the Office of Galactic Colonization sends out an expeditionary team to make contact with some of these civilizations. The goal is to help these extraterrestrial societies reach a level of modernization at which they can become productive members of the Galactic Commonwealth.

To this end, the ship Pedagogue travels to the Rigel system to examine two planets located there, which are referred to as Genoa and Texcoco. The former has reached a stage of technological and economic development similar to that of medieval Europe, while the latter is roughly analogous to the civilizations of pre-Columbian Mexico. Over the course of the long trip to Rigel, the scientists of the exploratory team argue long and hard over the proper methods for modernizing the two planets. With no consensus reached, the two opposing factions of the expedition agree to divide their forces into two teams, each of which will attempt to stimulate the development of one of the two planets. In this way, the mission becomes a competition between the two parties to see who can bring their planet to a more advanced state of development. The Genoan team decides to spur development by instituting a system of free-market capitalism, while the team on Texcoco opts to impel industrialization by establishing a form of totalitarian communism.

It’s not difficult to see this as a metaphor for the Cold War, with Genoa standing in for the United States while Texcoco functions as a surrogate for Soviet Russia. The clash between capitalist and socialist ideologies is a frequent topic of discussion in Reynolds’s writings. Here he portrays both systems in a cynical matter, quick to point out the deficiencies and faults of each while bestowing little praise on the merits of either. Both sides in this game of empire building are guilty of ethical transgressions. They are, after all, here to exploit the resources and populations of these two worlds, much like, as Reynolds seems to propose, the imperialist governments of Earth exploit the resources and labor of their own colonies and workers. While neither side is portrayed sympathetically, Reynolds clearly makes the Texcocans/Russians the more evil of the two, which is not too surprising given he was probably using the regime of Stalin as a model.

It’s fascinating to watch as these two societies develop over time. Every ten years the two teams meet on the mother ship to compare progress reports in a series of meetings that become more belligerent and militant as time goes on. While the scientists from Earth manipulate their planetary societies like masters in a chess game, the inhabitants of the two worlds are reluctant to play their roles as pawns. The ending delivers a surprise that the reader is unlikely to see coming.

Having read several of Reynolds’s novellas and short stories, I have found his work to be hit-and-miss, but Adaptation is one of the good ones. Skillfully combining high-brow sociological theory with low-brow pulp fiction entertainment, it makes for a fun and thought-provoking read.
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